Accelerating Learning

Accelerating Learning

Very young people learn extremely effectively if given half a chance. We almost all learned how to walk, talk, handle tools, control our bodily functions and get our needs met in complex social situations by the time we were three years old. This is an astonishing achievement.

Our ability and willingness to learn new things tend to fall off dramatically as we get older compared to our earliest years. This learning ‘gap’ may appear inevitable and biological, therefore unchangeable.

I want to challenge this assumption.

How infants learn

Very young children learn in many, many different ways. They observe the world. They try things out for fun and see what happens. They imitate people, ask questions and ask for help. They set themselves goals and go for them with enormous persistence. Their involvement in the learning process is total. There is no separation between learning, play, work, and leisure.

Infants do everything, including all aspects of learning, with frightening intensity. If they hit obstacles, they freely express their frustration in tears or tantrums. There will be squeals of excitement or enormous giggles if they have success. These forms of emotional release seem to unlock the energy required to continue learning.

The learning environment around young people

Unfortunately, because our society does not value or support parenting, the pressures on parents make it hard to maintain optimal conditions for learning. However, something like what follows happens in most homes sometimes.

A child is learning to walk. Typically the adults around the child are 1) paying loving attention, 2) being encouraging, 3) showing delight at attempts and ‘failures’ as well as successes, 4) being noisily enthusiastic about the child (you clever girl!) and showing it, 5) not ‘helping’, 6) not judging or criticising, 7) not giving advice, 8) not interfering with the child’s natural learning process, 9) not directing what the child should learn, or when 10) celebrating success with the child 11) accepting the child’s feelings and allowing their expression.

The effect of this loving and encouraging atmosphere is that the child enjoys the learning process and responds to others’ pleasure in her learning. Everyone finds it enormous fun.

Real-life examples

The learning environments are the closest to the ideal above that I have found.

Sudbury Valley School has no curriculum. The children choose what they want to learn and when and how they want to learn it. There are no grades or exams. It is extraordinarily effective. The book Free at Last about the school is utterly inspiring.

Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” experiments show that children can teach themselves and each other. Children all over India learned English and how to use the internet entirely without instruction. They were motivated by curiosity and peer interest. There’s more here.

How is the natural learning process degraded?

Learning is one function of human intelligence. To understand how it operates (and is degraded), we need to know how intelligence works. Human beings as infants have enormously flexible intelligence in that they take in information open-mindedly from the environment, compare and contrast it with what they already know and then make a new and appropriate (for them) response. The flexibility of very young children’s intelligence is legendary; you can never predict what they will do.

This process is available to all of us and works well except in two circumstances. We tend not to think well when we are hurting and may then do stupid things which hurt us or others. We also find it challenging to think when we are in situations that remind us of times when we have been hurt in the past. Again, we tend to do stupid things that reinforce the original hurt. Eventually, this leads us to develop rigid (non-learning) behaviour patterns.

When we are hurting, the degradation of intelligence affects all aspects of human behaviour, including our learning processes. We cannot learn effectively when we are hurting or when the situation we are trying to learn in reminds us of a painful ‘learning’ one. Unfortunately, some of these ‘learning’ situations were inappropriately managed and hurtful. We were often judged, criticised, rigidly controlled and humiliated. Many of us acquire a rigid pattern of rejecting voluntary learning altogether because of our association of all learning situations with painful experiences.

The recovery process

When young people are hurt, they take immediate action to get rid of their pain. This process is spontaneous and untaught. Typically a young person will find another attentive person and then actively release the tension. This release can take the form of talking to the other person, crying, angry movements (a tantrum), sweating or shaking, laughing, or yawning. These processes will continue, if uninterrupted, for quite a long time. In the end, the child will be bright-eyed, energetic, and eager to continue learning.

These processes thoroughly eliminate the painful emotion and help the child think and learn again. Unfortunately, these recovery processes disturb adults and society and tend to be inhibited, often in quite unconscious ways (e.g. the common injunction “big boys don’t cry”). We tend to lose the awareness and ability to use our natural recovery processes through these inhibitions imposed on us from outside.

Counselling is a way to recover and use this natural process. In its most powerful form, the counsellor and client then swap roles. One person agrees to pay attention to another as the other “talks through” a problem or situation and releases their tension using the above mechanisms. This process will shift the inhibitions around learning using all the modalities available to young people. You can learn this quickly.

Celebrating Learning

When young people learn something new, they naturally and noisily celebrate this fact by crowing about it. The child celebrates their enormous cleverness in learning this new thing. The expression of self-appreciation and delight anchors in their mind the awareness of the child’s abilities and reinforces their motivation towards making the best of new learning experiences.

This celebration makes most adults feel uncomfortable because it stirs their doubt and discouragement. We tend to suppress the child from ‘showing off’ and create the same doubt and lack of confidence. So the process perpetuates itself.

It does not have to be this way.


We can create better conditions for learning to take place. These imply more play, more support, more learner-centred and much less detailed instruction.

Faster learning will help individuals and organisations be far more effective and innovative.

We need to enable our students and ourselves to release their tension about learning situations before teaching anything. Tense students with tense teachers are not likely to learn well. That means they will need to know how to help each other release this. We can help our students and ourselves recover our giant-sized ability to learn.

We need to encourage our students to celebrate their naturally enormous ability to learn and crow about their successes. Trainers and teachers might do this themselves. ‘Three reasons why I am an excellent teacher are…’

We need to do more research into natural learning. Let’s notice what young people do, listen to how they think and learn, and learn from them.


The ideas in this note are a hypothesis based on common sense observations. They now need further testing and refining. If they prove valid, we will design learning and teaching processes that will enable us to use our innate abilities to learn. The implications and benefits are staggering.

If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick